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Rae days are here again

Thursday, May 4, 2006

When you’re publicly identified as an outspoken New Democratic Party activist in your community, you can usually safely predict the kind of conversations that you’re likely going to have on any given day. People who see me at the park or at a concert tend to make small talk by asking me what I think about the latest goings on in Ottawa, at Queen’s Park, or even at Kitchener City Hall. They don’t generally start off by talking to me about the weather (which is too bad, because I actually have a lot of opinions about the weather).

For the past week, almost everyone I’ve talked to has wanted to know what I think about former Ontario Premier Bob Rae’s decision to seek the leadership of the federal Liberal Party (although a few hardcore policy wonks have also wanted to talk about my reaction to “NDP insider” Jim Laxer’s critical article in the latest issue of The Walrus). I’ll give you the long version of my opinion of Rae’s leadership prospects, since the short version – sustained laughter – doesn’t translate too well onto the printed page.

While no one should discount the organizational abilities of Greg Sorbara, Eddie Goldenberg or Rae’s brother John, I am fairly confident that there is little chance that Rae will emerge victorious from the crowded field of Liberal leadership aspirants. Whatever first ballot support he is able to build, Rae has almost zero growth potential on subsequent ballots (and, with ten or more candidates, there are bound to be a number of ballots). But, even if he does win the leadership, both his candidacy and what has apparently attracted his supporters are based on a faulty premise.

The notion that the Conservatives are currently in power because “the left is divided” works only if one accepts that the Liberals are part of the left. Moreover, having spent most of the five years that he was in power unsuccessfully trying to turn the NDP into an imitation of the Liberal Party, there is no reason why Rae should have any more success trying to turn the Liberal Party in a more progressive direction. Others have tried to achieve this transformation before him, and others may try after him, but the Liberal Party is just as much a vehicle for advancing corporate interests as the Conservatives. They may talk like NDPers when they are in opposition, but they govern like Tories when they achieve power.

Former NDP leader Ed Broadbent correctly identified the inherent problem in Rae’s political rebirth as a federal Liberal. Writing in The Globe and Mail, Broadbent mocks Rae’s “recent discovery that politics is ‘about people,’ not ‘ideology,’ as if these were mutually exclusive categories. Like many Liberals, Bob Rae creates the undefined straw man, labelled ‘ideology,’ to attack. In part, this seems intended to deflect our attention away from his own unexceptional ideology, i.e. mainstream liberal democracy. Consider a short list of the things he tells us he is for: a united federal country; economic growth and environmental sustainability; the rule of law; investing in education; free, fair and open trade; and, markets that are neither despised nor worshipped. No Canadian politician would oppose any of these. Only someone capable of describing himself as being part of the ‘progressive centre,’ could imply that these are uniquely Liberal ideas….”

Broadbent notes that Rae now contends that “more often than not… [politics is about] finding the middle ground.” Of course, “no sane politician would disagree that a major element of daily democratic political life consists precisely in finding the common ground, when it's to be found. This is done all the time. Indeed, advanced democracies owe their stability to the fact we agree on 60 per cent to 70 per cent of matters. But to define one's political goal as, in effect, seeking the middle ground is to reveal a deep commitment to the status quo. For many of us, serious politics begins with those issues where there is no middle ground. That's when differing values come into conflict…. Moreover, the groundbreakers in democracy, more often than not, struggle against the status quo middle ground. They are the ones whose ideologies include the principles of equality and justice, and far from excluding ‘the people,’ embrace and give them political voice.”

To the extent that any real division exists on the left, it is between those who are willing to hold their nose and accept that the Liberals are measurably better than the Conservatives and those who prefer to work for a genuine progressive alternative to both parties. As long as the Liberals continue to apply fresh coats of paint in an attempt to disguise the rot at the heart of their party, that task will be more difficult. But, it is a task that is both necessary and worthwhile, regardless of what Bob Rae decides to do.
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